Dumping dubious remedies: 'curing' homosexuality

Savi Hensman
By Savi Hensman
9 Feb 2010

All too often, ineffective or dangerous remedies, no longer saleable in the West, are exported to Africa. The notion that homosexuality can be 'cured' is just one example.

Drug dumping – when unreliable, useless or dangerous pharmaceutical products are donated to countries in the South – can make bad situations worse. For instance, during emergency relief operations, “Expired drugs (at the time of their arrival) and drugs close to expiry still comprise a large proportion of donations from non-governmental organisations, corporations, pharmaceutical industries and associations,” as pointed out in a World Health Organization (WHO) Bulletin in 2008 by Cristina P. Pinheiro.

Treatments now seldom used in the West may continue to be common in poorer countries. For instance, medicines effective against HIV but with dangerous, sometimes deadly, side-effects continued to be widely used in Africa years after they stopped being routinely administered to North American and European patients. Even when there are some benefits, it is questionable whether treatments no longer acceptable in the West should be regarded as good enough for people in other parts of the world.

Methods aimed at 'curing' homosexuality, which failed badly in the West, are now being peddled in Africa and elsewhere. And the discredited theories behind these methods are being used to try to justify harsh repression, for instance in Uganda, where parliament may pass a law inflicting life imprisonment on gays and lesbians, and jailing heterosexuals such as clergy, who do not inform on members of their congregations.

Wrecking lives

In September 2009, the UK Prime Minister offered a posthumous apology to one of the greatest scientists of the twenty-first century: a mathematical genius whose code-breaking skills helped to defeat Nazi Germany during the Second World War and who laid the foundations for modern computer science. Alan Turing had the misfortune to be gay at a time when sex between men was illegal. He was arrested in 1952, his security clearance was withdrawn and he was offered a choice between prison and drug 'treatment', which he took. The side-effects were extremely distressing and in 1954, at the age of forty-one, he took his own life. Who knows what discoveries he might have gone on to make had he not been driven to suicide?

Attempts to 'cure homosexuality' were common in countries such as the UK and USA in the early to mid twentieth century. It was recognised that a minority of people were strongly attracted to the same, rather than the opposite sex, often from an early age. Having the 'wrong' sexual orientation was frowned on. The threat of being arrested for men, and of public scorn and loss of livelihood for both sexes, led many to try to make themselves 'normal'. Some got married, often disastrously. Doctors and psychotherapists used various methods to try to 'cure' homosexuality, from talking therapies to electric shocks, while ministers of religion prayed and offered 'spiritual guidance'.

But gradually it became clear that such 'treatments' seldom worked and often did great harm. Gays and lesbians might for a while convince themselves and others that they had changed, but in the longer term, the feelings they had would usually return. They might marry in the hope of changing, but this often led to a strained relationship, in which the partner too, might suffer greatly.

Extracts from interviews published in 2004 in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) revealed the lasting damage which some experienced. One man described his “feeling of a lack of self worth — I think that was a tremendous impact, because I shouldn't feel like that and I don't have any gay friends who do feel like that. I think that treatment had a lot to answer for in that respect.”

Another personal account on http://Treatmentshomosexuality.org.uk, a website set up by the BMJ researchers – Michael King, Glenn Smith and Annie Bartlett – described how “Increasingly I feel betrayed by the promises of treatment. After I left treatment, where was the back up? My deepest feelings, the very structure of my being had been torn apart in the name of science – like so many others perhaps – and left abandoned whilst the psychologists got on with building their own careers and lives.”

However, lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) people in some European countries had an even worse experience. In Germany under Hitler in the 1940s, some were locked up in concentration camps. In Franco’s Spain in 1954, gay relationships were declared illegal “with the purpose of collective guarantee and the aspiration of correcting those subjects fallen to the lowest levels of morality. This law is not intended to punish, but to correct and reform". Many men were sent to 'correction camps' for 'therapy'. Such state-sponsored repression continued until 1979.

Accepting gay and lesbian orientation

Meanwhile, historians and social scientists were uncovering more and more evidence that people experienced same-sex attraction and intimacy across different eras and cultures, though this had been understood in different ways. Naturalists also found examples of same-sex sexual behaviour among numerous animal species.

As more gays and lesbians grew bold enough to live openly, people increasingly came to recognise that they could live well-adjusted lives if they and others could come to terms with human diversity. Trying to 'cure' what was not an illness came to seem unnecessary. Though some people of faith still believed same-sex relationships to be less than ideal, many urged celibacy rather than attempt in vain to turn gays into heterosexuals. Others however, took the view that faithful and loving relationships should be nurtured.

Some of the professionals who tried to change people’s sexual orientation still try to justify what they did, to themselves and others, and a few still persist in trying. For some, perhaps, it is a defence against the guilt that might otherwise overwhelm them for using 'treatments' which did such physical, psychological and spiritual damage, including in some cases mental breakdown, loss of faith, despair and suicide.

Others feel ashamed. A clinical psychologist, interviewed for the BMJ admitted that “I feel a lot of shame. I don't think I've ever spoken about it since then apart from now.” Three former leaders of the Christian 'ex-gay' movement made a public apology in 2007: “Some who heard our message were compelled to try to change an integral part of themselves, bringing harm to themselves and their families. Although we acted in good faith, we have since witnessed the isolation, shame, fear, and loss of faith that this message creates.”

One of these, Darlene Bogle, confessed, “My heart breaks as I hear the many stories of abuse and suicide from men and women who couldn’t change their orientation, regardless of what Exodus and other Christian ministries told them. One of our female attendees became so depressed over her inability to change that she jumped off a bridge rather than continue the struggle. I was told it wasn’t my fault, but my heart knew better.” Another, Michael Bussee, also from the USA and a founder of the 'ex-gay' organisation, Exodus International, reckoned that “not one of the hundreds of people we counselled became straight.”

Exporting what is discredited in the West

Some in the West, especially in certain kinds of church circles, still promote such 'solutions'. They are unable to accept the fact that a large-scale human experiment over several decades, using multiple methods aimed at changing people’s sexuality, seldom achieved the desired goal and far more often resulted in harm.

Such 'treatments' however, no longer have mainstream scientific credibility. In 2007, the UK-based Royal College of Psychiatrists stated that “There is now a large body of research evidence that indicates that being gay, lesbian or bisexual is compatible with normal mental health and social adjustment...

“A small minority of therapists will even go so far as to attempt to change their client’s sexual orientation. This can be deeply damaging. Although there is now a number of therapists and organisation[s] in the USA and in the UK that claim that therapy can help homosexuals to become heterosexual, there is no evidence that such change is possible... we know from historical evidence that treatments to change sexual orientation that were common in the 1960s and 1970s were very damaging to those patients who underwent them and affected no change in their sexual orientation.”

In 2009, an American Psychological Association task force reviewed scientific studies of sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE) and “found serious methodological problems in this area of research, such that only a few studies met the minimal standards for evaluating whether psychological treatments, such as efforts to change sexual orientation, are effective.

“...the results of scientifically valid research indicate that it is unlikely that individuals will be able to reduce same-sex attractions or increase other-sex sexual attractions through SOCE.”

However 'treatments' of this kind are now being promoted in other parts of the world. For instance Uganda’s Anti Homosexuality Bill was proposed after three visiting Americans, presented as experts on the issue, gave a series of talks in March 2009 to politicians, teachers and police officers, among others. Scott Lively, Caleb Lee Brundidge and Don Schmierer graphically warned about the supposed threat posed by gays and lesbians to young people and wider society and promoted the view that those who wanted to turn heterosexual could do so. This helped to fuel fierce anger against gays and lesbians across the country.

Human rights activists, locally and internationally, have mobilised against the Bill. Ironically, some Ugandans now regard it as a matter of national pride to legislate on the basis of such claims, which have been thoroughly discredited in the USA itself. In effect, toxic 'treatments' are being 'dumped' on people in the South with the support of certain local leaders, though others are less than enthusiastic.

The debate over 'curing' gay and lesbian sexuality is sometimes portrayed as a source of tension between the 'liberal' West and the more socially conservative South. But much of the treatment of LGBT people in Europe and North America over the past eighty years or so has been far from liberal. It did however, become clear through bitter experience that attempts to change orientation were unlikely to succeed. Sooner or later, many of the Ugandans and others in the South who are keen to import such 'treatments' will find they do more harm than good. However, it is hard to estimate how many more people, both LGBT and heterosexual, will have had their lives wrecked.

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© Savitri Hensman was born in Sri Lanka. She works in the voluntary sector in community care and equalities in the UK, and she is also a respected writer on Christianity and social justice. An Ekklesia associate, Savi has contributed several chapters to the book Fear or Freedom? Why a warring church must change, edited by Simon Barrow (Shoving Leopard / Ekklesia, 2008). She is a member of the Church of England and has written widely on Anglican affairs.

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